Quinoa at the Heart of International Farmer Rights and Hunger Dispute

Quinoa–a resilient and highly nutritious grain–is increasingly popular worldwide and could be a solution to hunger, but the plant will not flourish outside its native Andean Plateau, or Altiplano. And the seed that could be used to breed more adaptable varieties is closely held by Bolivia and other Andean nations. FERN investigates the worldwide food fight for this tiny seed in its latest story, “The Quinoa Quarrel,” by Lisa M. Hamilton in the May 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine. The magazine is available on newsstands and online (subscription required).

Hamilton, who is a photographer as well as a writer, also put together a collection of images of the unique region where quinoa was domesticated and of the Alteños who call that place home. You can see the photo essay on FERN’s Web siteHarper’s site, andMedium.com.

“If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it,” a Danish agronomist who has studied the plant for more than twenty years tells Hamilton.

Since quinoa became a common grain in health food stores, Bolivian farmers have prospered. The grain provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and is (unlike any other plant food in the world) a complete protein, with adequate stores of all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t synthesize itself. It is also resilient, thriving in soil saturated with salt and tolerating cold and drought.

“Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real—‘royal quinoa’—whose seeds are the world market’s gold standard,” writes Hamilton, describing the view from the Bolivian volcano Thunupa. “Looking down as we climb, I see every bit of land between the salt pan and the hills is covered with quinoa, like a red-and-yellow skirt at the volcano’s feet.”

Given the plant’s amazing resilience, it could add substantially to global agricultural production, if only the Bolivians, who have the world’s biggest seed bank, would share it. But for both cultural and economic reasons, the Bolivians have turned into genetic protectionists. “[This] leads,” writes Hamilton, “to an uncomfortable standoff: the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world.”

“The [Antiplano’s] rural villages had long been emptying out, for all the familiar reasons: lack of opportunity, meager incomes, and, increasingly, environmental challenges,” notes Hamilton. “Quinoa now allows farmers to remain in those villages; it has even enabled some emigrants to return.”

Hamilton journeys from the Andes to a multimillion-dollar greenhouse facility in Provo, Utah, where two Mormon agronomists are desperately trying to produce hybrid quinoa—which could help feed the 9 billion inhabitants who will occupy the earth by 2050.

“But there was no way to meet this demand as long as the Andean nations refused to facilitate production outside their borders while lacking the infrastructure to supply additional demand themselves,” Hamilton writes. She also notes, however, that once the germplasm is shared, there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be made into something that’s patented.

Currently the Bolivian government maintains a bank of quinoa seeds, but researchers in Bolivia and around the world question the government’s ability to safeguard the seeds in light of incidences like a 1998 fire that nearly destroyed the country’s painstakingly collected 1,900 varieties.

“Even state ownership, meant to protect a crop like quinoa from corporate predation, tends to work against the larger goal of promoting genetic diversity,” Hamilton concludes.

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